David Hume

David Hume

David Hume (1711-1776) went into history as one of the most important figures of Western philosophy but he also made important contributions to history and literature. In contrary to rationalists such as Descartes, Hume argued that it is not reason that governs human behaviour but desire instead. He said that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions”. But despite the fact that had profoundly influenced the next generation of philosophers, his theories were not received particularly well by his contemporaries.

Personal Life

David Hume was born in 1711 to Joseph Home of Chirnside and his wife Katherine Falconer in Edinburgh, Scotland. He later changed his surname from Home into Hume because it was pronounced incorrectly outside Scotland. Hume started to attend the University of Edinburgh at a very early age. In contrary to most of his schoolmates who were 14 years old, he was aged 12 or 10. He was pressed by his family to study law but instead, as he said he had secretly devoted himself to studying Voet, Vinnius, Cicero and Virgil. Due to the intensity of his intellectual discovery, however, he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1729 from which he did not recover fully for several years.

In 1734, he went to France, spending most of the time at the La Fleche where he started to write his best known and most influential work titled A Treatise of Human Nature. The critics in Britain, however, disliked it and described it as unintelligible. Hume was disappointed by the reception of his first work but he soon got over it. He returned to England in 1737. In 1740, he moved to Edinburgh where he wrote “Essays Moral and Political”. It was published in 1744 and it was much better received than the Treatise. Possibly encouraged by the success, he applied for the chair of moral philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, however, he was rejected due to opposition of the Edinburgh ministers for his “heresy” and “atheism”.

Again disappointed, Hume left Edinburgh and spend an entire decade wandering from one place to another. But all this time, he continued to study and write. It was during the period of wandering when Hume started to write the six volume and over million word “The History of England” that was published between 1754 and 1762, and became a best-seller. While he was working for Lieutenant-General St Clair, he also wrote the “Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding” (published as An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding in 1758) which was followed by “The Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals in 1751. He continued to write almost until his death, ending his list of works with the autobiography “My Own Life”. He died from cancer in 1776. Hume never married and had no children.

Works and Influence

Hume’s approach to the fundamental questions of philosophy, his reformulation of scepticism and approach to science of human nature dramatically influenced the future course of Western philosophy. The Scottish philosopher played an important role in the development of critical philosophy by Immanuel Kant and Auguste Comte’s positivism but he also greatly influenced Jeremy Bentham and the school of utilitarianism. Ironically, the greatest impact on history of philosophy achieved his first work, A Treatise of Human Nature that met a disappointing response from his contemporaries.

In addition to philosophy, Hume is also regarded as one of the most important figures in the field of history, literature and economy. The History of England broke with the tradition that traced only political and military history, and was intentionally created to be more readable. All Hume’s works reveal an exceptional sense for style for which he became famous already during his lifetime and remains highly valued ever since. His writing on economy, especially in the Political Discourses and Treatise are thought to influence his friend, Adam Smith who became a pioneer of political economy. The extent of Hume’s influence on Smith is unknown but he introduced several ideas that profoundly influenced the 18th century economy as a whole.